Friday, October 28, 2016

Descent unto Kurukshetra: this incarnate life

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

It has now been nearly forty days since our earth sped past the "crossing-downwards" point of the September equinox -- the fall equinox for our planet's northern hemisphere, where the ecliptic path traced out by the sun during the day falls below the line of the celestial equator, and the hours of darkness during each daily rotation become longer than the hours of daylight, with days growing shorter and shorter as we continue our "plunge" towards the very bottom of the year, at winter solstice.

This plunge out of the "upper half" of the year (the summer half, when days are longer than nights) down into the "lower half" (the winter half, when nights are longer than days) is depicted in ancient myth as the lower realm, the "underworld" in a sense. 

After much examination of the world's ancient myths, as well as of the arguments presented by Alvin Boyd Kuhn in writings such as Lost Light, I am convinced that the sacred stories found around the world employ this cycle of shifting from longer days (in the upper half) to longer nights (in the lower half) was seen as representative of the cycle of each mortal soul between the realm of spirit (the Spirit World, the Invisible Realm, the realm of the gods) and the realm of matter (the material realm, the mortal realm, where we find ourselves in this incarnate life).

From our perspective here in the incarnate body, we might logically assume that the "lower half" of the great cycle -- the winter half of the year, when hours of darkness dominate and days are shorter than nights -- must represent the "realm of the dead," the spirit realm, the disembodied realm where souls exist when they are not incarnate in a body.

But that assumption would be mistaken.

In fact, as Kuhn argues persuasively, and as the myths themselves confirm, the ancient system envisions the "upper half" of the year as the heavenly realm, the realm of the gods, the realm of spirit -- and they depict the "plunge" downwards across the line separating the upper half of the year from the lower half of the year, which takes place at the fall equinox during the great annual cycle, as representative of the plunge down from the spirit realm into the material realm, when we take on a human body and embark upon the difficult "lower crossing" of the underworld of this incarnate life.

This system of allegorization, Kuhn argues, also explains the ancient celebration of the festivals that take place forty days after the "crossing down" point of the fall equinox -- most commonly known as Halloween in the modern world, because of the name given to the day during the Christian era, but by many other names in many other traditions. Forty days after September 21st brings us to October 31st. Kuhn argues that the number 40 is often used as symbolic of the period of gestation (which is forty weeks), and that the celebration of Halloween thus represents an important "crossing point" of its own: the descent by spirits from the Other Realm into this incarnate realm which we now inhabit, and through which we often seem to stumble and grope as if in the darkness -- divine sparks temporarily embodied in animal forms, a unique combination of mortal and immortal. See this previous post from two years ago for more on that subject, and on Kuhn's illuminating treatise on the profound meaning of Halloween.

As we approach this special point on the calendar each year, it is not inappropriate to reflect upon the magnificent Mahabharata of ancient India, in which the entire epic descends inexorably towards the cataclysmic battle that will be fought upon the Plain of Kurukshetra, between the five heroic sons of Pandu and the massive army led by the the Kauravas, and particularly by the implacable Duryodhana, who wishes to rule over the entire world and who disregards the right order of the universe and the advice of all the gods and wise counselors who try to dissuade him from his disastrous course.

There are very good reasons for understanding this mighty conflict as representative of the very same struggle between light and darkness that takes place every year as we orbit the sun -- the progression through the equinoxes and solstices, and the interplay between days that are dominated by longer hours of darkness and days that are dominated by longer hours of daylight.

Immediately prior to the start of this awful conflict, the heroic Arjuna, pre-eminent among the five sons of Pandu (particularly because he has spent time among the celestial realms and obtained both instruction and celestial weapons from the gods and goddesses themselves), finds himself wracked by doubts, and instructs the Lord Krishna, who has volunteered to act as Arjuna's non-combatant charioteer throughout the battle, to take him to the field in between the two assembled armies, so that he can sit down on the ground and wait to be killed, rather than lifting up arms against his own beloved family-members.

This reluctance -- this overwhelming doubt -- actually mirrors very closely the doubt exhibited by Thomas in the gospel story of "Doubting Thomas" (found only in the gospel according to John in the canonical texts we call the New Testament), as well as that exhibited by the beautiful Psyche in the myth of Eros and Psyche (or Cupid and Psyche) described by various ancient sources including Apuleius.

And, just as the figure of Jesus in the gospel story encourages Thomas to trust him, the Lord Krishna in the Mahabharata encourages Arjuna, telling Arjuna to perform his duty upon the battlefield -- metaphorically, representative of this incarnate life, with its endless interplay or struggle between the spiritual and material natures. And he does so in the section of the Mahabharata known as the Bhagavad Gita, "the Song of the Lord," in which Sri Krishna not only encourages Arjuna to perform his duty, but also gives him the promise of eventual victory, and a description of the path -- indeed, the Yoga -- by which this eventual and inevitable victory will be achieved.

The nature of the instruction which Krishna imparts to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita makes it very clear that this encouragement is for each and every one of us in this incarnate life: for each and every soul which incarnates in this material realm, this "Plain of Kurukshetra." It is not advice given exclusively to an ancient semi-divine warrior named Arjuna, about to embark upon a literal battle upon a literal battlefield -- not at all (in fact, much of the advice seems to have little to do with situations one might encounter upon the battlefield).

Upon this momentous occasion, during which we who are presently living on our earth as it approach esthe end of the forty days' "gestation" following the great crossing-point of September equinox, here are some of the verses from the poetic song of Lord Krishna as he encourages Arjuna at the similarly "pregnant pause" before the mighty battle of Kurukshetra:
He that abstains
To help the rolling wheels of this great world,
Glutting his idle sense, lives a lost life,
Shameful and vain.  (Bhagavad Gita chapter 3, verse 16).*
Therefore, thy task prescribed 
With spirit unattached gladly perform,
Since in performance of plain duty man
Mounts to his highest bliss. (Bhagavad Gita chapter 3, verse 19).
To cease from works 
Is well, and to do works in holiness
Is well; and both conduct to bliss supreme [translated elsewhere as "Union with Ultimate Consciousness"];
But of these twain the better way is his
Who working piously refraineth not.
That is the true Renouncer, firm and fixed, 
Who -- seeking nought, rejecting nought -- dwells proof
Against the "opposites." O valiant Prince!
In doing, such breaks lightly from all deed:
'Tis the new scholar talks as they were two,
This Sankhya and this Yoga: wise men know
Who husbands on plucks golden fruit of both!
The region of high rest which Sankhyans reach 
Yogins attain. Who sees these twain as one
Sees with clear eyes! (Bhagavad Gita chapter 5, verses 2 - 5).

[in other words -- the paths of action and inaction are actually the same: the goal is right action without attachment, and this can be attained through the path of renunciation and meditation, or through the cultivation of right action without attachment to the results; pursuing either of these paths yields the same benefit, and if you see it properly, you will realize that both are in fact the same path].
Because the perfect Yogin acts -- but acts
Unmoved by passions and unbound by deeds,
Setting result aside. (Bhagavad Gita chapter 6, verse 4).
When the man,
So living, centers on his soul the though
Straitly restrained -- untouched internally 
By stress of sense -- then is he Yukta. See!
Steadfast a lamp burns sheltered from the wind;
Such is the likeness of the Yogi's mind
Shut from sense-storms and burning bright to Heaven. (Bhagavad Gita chapter 6, verses 18 - 19).
[in the next passage, Lord Krishna promises Arjuna that once one has started on the path, the ultimate achievement of victory is assured, even if it takes multiple incarnations; this is in answer to Arjuna's urgent question regarding "What road goeth he who, having faith, fails? In the striving, falling back from holiness, missing the perfect rule? Is he not lost, straying from Bhrama's light, like the vain cloud, which floats twixt earth and heaven when lightning splits it, and it vanisheth?"] Krishna answers:
He is not lost, thou Son of Pritha! No!
Nor earth, nor heaven is forfeit, even for him,
Because no heart that holds one right desire
Treadeth the road of loss! He who should fail,
Desiring righteousness, cometh at death
Unto the Region of the Just; dwells there
Measureless years, and being born anew,
Beginneth life again in some fair home [. . .]. (Bhagavad Gita chapter 6, verses 40 - 41).
[As has been asserted in previous discussions of the Bhagavad Gita, and based upon some of the revealing insights offered by Professor Victor H. Mair in the appendix discussions included in his 1990 translation of the Tao Te Ching, the overarching injunction given to Arjuna by Krishna is to do what is right, without attachment to the outcome: and Krishna is careful to reiterate several times throughout the discourse that "action without attachment" must be right action, not action that harms others. In the following verses, Krishna makes this very explicit]:
I am not known
To evil-doers, nor to foolish ones,
Nor to the base and churlish; nor to those
Whose mind is cheated by the show of things,
Nor to those that take the way of Asuras. (Bhagavad Gita chapter 7, verse 15).
By "the way of Asuras," the Lord Krishna appears to be indicating the way of powerful evil and malevolent beings of the spirit realm known as the Asuras in the Sanskrit epics Mahabharata and Ramayana.  Remember that the assertion I am making is that the Bhagavad Gita provides advice, direction and encouragement to the soul descending to this "battlefield" of incarnate life; Lord Krishna argues that the path to transcendence and integration with the divine Ultimate involves a discipline or a path of right action, performed with the same mind as if not taking action at all (performed without attachment, performed as if by one not acting).

This path at many points in the Gita seems to be described using the word Yoga, implying that it is a discipline, a practice -- and the word Yoga itself has been argued by Alvin Boyd Kuhn to involve connection or linking (linguistically related to the words junction and also union): perhaps the linking or integration of our material nature with our spiritual nature, and perhaps also the linking of our mortal nature with our divine nature and ultimately with the Universal Divine as well.

And yet here we have a clear warning that the path does not involve "the way of the Asuras."

I do not believe the Bhagavad Gita threw in this divine injunction for no reason at all.

As we have seen, there are two paths that are described which lead to the same positive outcome (and which actually turn out to be the same path): the path of action, and the path of inaction, both of which are the same if we understand that we are enjoined to pursue right action but without attachment, as if not even acting. And we are admonished that we are not to take the path or the way of the Asuras.

Further, if we take the path Krishna is describing, then the ultimate positive outcome is assured, even if it takes multiple incarnations.

Just prior to the assembly of the opposing forces in their battle lines, and immediately prior to the chapters containing the Bhagavad Gita, the Mahabharata describes a scene in which Krishna urges Arjuna to call upon the goddess Durga. Arjuna does so, and the goddess appears -- and she too promises Arjuna that his eventual victory is assured: in her words, he is literally "incapable of being defeated" in his endeavor. Again, if we understand the battle of Kurukshetra to be representative of the cycles undergone by the soul itself, then this encouraging blessing from the goddess Durga is in fact addressed to each and every man and woman who comes down into this incarnation and whose heart holds (as Lord Krishna says) "one right desire."

The manifestation of the goddess Durga immediately prior to the battle, as discussed in previous posts such as this one, must be seen as powerful confirmation that these scenes are indeed celestial allegory, for the plunge below the line at fall equinox is traditionally presided over by the sign of Virgo (see the zodiac wheel diagram below) -- and indeed, Durga herself can be shown to be associated with the celestial figure of Virgo.

One of the ways we can be sure that Durga is associated with Virgo is the fact that she rides a lion or is often depicted with a lion by her side -- and the zodiac constellation Virgo follows immediately behind the zodiac constellation Leo in the sky.

Another way we can know that Durga is associated with Virgo is the fact that Durga is very closely identified with her action of defeating a powerful Asura named Mahish Asura, who is a mighty bull-headed or buffalo-headed demon or malevolent spirit-being.

It happens that Virgo and Taurus are located at opposite ends of the sky, such that when Virgo is rising in the east, Taurus is sinking down below the horizon in the west. Thus, the approach of Durga causes Mahishasura to flee in terror.

In fact, Durga is often described as actually beheading the powerful Mahish Asura -- and we can see in the sky that the "head" of Taurus is located a short distance away from the unmistakeable figure of Orion, an outline that resembles a powerful striding figure, carrying weapons . . . but without a head (to speak of). As Virgo rises with her arm outstretched, Orion sinks down in the west, with his "bull head" severed from his body (if we envision him, for purposes of the Durga mythology, as a great buffalo-headed or bull-headed Asura):

And below is a famous panel sculpted in relief, showing the goddess riding on her lion, with bow-arm outstretched, as Mahish leans away from her (notice that one leg of the striding figure of Orion is bent at the knee, just as is one leg of Mahish Asura):

image: Wikimedia commons (link).

From all of the above evidence, we can confidently conclude that the episodes at the beginning of the Mahabharata -- including the Bhagavad Gita -- are celestial and esoteric in nature, designed not to be understood as literal accounts of a terrestrial and historical battle, but rather to convey to our heart's understanding deep truths about the Invisible Realm, and our place and purpose here in this material-spiritual universe.

As we approach that fortieth day from the September equinox, we approach the point of the year associated with the descent of the soul into the body, and the point of embarkation upon the arduous struggle upon the great battlefield of Kurukshetra.

But we do so armed with the encouragement of the Lord Krishna, to act in accordance with what is right, without attachment (as if not even acting at all) -- and also armed with the promise, from both Krishna and from the goddess Durga, that we are actually incapable of being defeated.

Do not take the way of the Asuras.


* Verses above from the Bhagavad Gita are from the Edwin Arnold translation of 1885, available here. The same website contains the entire Ganguli translation of 1883 - 1896 as well; the sections containing the Gita can be found here. At the end of each quoted section is a link to another site that contains the Sanskrit text as well as another translation, plus a transliteration of the Sanskrit along with a literal word-for-word English translation of each specific Sanskrit word. That site also contains files with an audio reading of the verses in Sanskrit (as well as in other languages).